Out of Africa: Nigerian environment minister warns of devastating climate impacts

By Bryan Walker 09/06/2014

The government in New Zealand may make soothing noises about climate change impacts, but that is not an option for the Minister of Environment in Nigeria, Mrs Laurentia Mallam. She issued this chilling warning about the impacts of sea level rise a few days ago:

“Studies have projected that with an accelerated sea level rise of 0.5 meters, 35 per cent of the Niger Delta land mass will be lost, and with accelerated sea level rise of 1.0 meters, 75 per cent of the Niger Delta will be gone under water.

“Given this scenario, it implies that nearly 32 million people (22.6 per cent of the national population) who live along the coastal zone are at the risk of becoming environmental refugees. Such forced movement could result in social frictions arising from demands of land resources for economic activities by the refugees.”

For good measure she listed the full effects of climate change on her country:

“In Nigeria, the impacts of climate change are manifested by erosion and landslides in the east, drought, and desertification in the north, raising sea levels in the coastal areas and flooding across the nation.”

The adaptation measures required by Nigeria will obviously be of staggering proportions, and add urgency to the need to prevent the problem from getting even worse than it is already going to be.

The Minister puts the needed response into a global context:

“It is clear that the only choice for humanity is to take practical actions through reducing emissions, awareness creation, preparing for extreme events and adapting to the impacts of climate change. We need to plan for the changes that are expected to occur. We need to adjust our ecological, social, and economic systems and change the way we do things.”

This clarity about the impacts of climate change on human societies is not often encountered from government Ministers in developed countries, most of whom are not yet confronted by the kind of undeniable and devastating prospect which Nigeria faces. For that matter it may not be easy for a Minister in a government which relies as heavily on fossil fuel revenues as Nigeria’s to speak so unequivocally. But those who govern owe it to their citizens to face these realities themselves and communicate them with some gravity. Ignoring them is dereliction of duty.

It is somewhat depressing to read the Nigerian statement in a country where the government is still largely avoiding the issue. Consider the measures of required practical action that the Nigerian Minister lists. New Zealand presently falls woefully short on most of them. We are increasing emissions, not reducing them. Awareness creation is hardly part of the government’s programme — I can’t recall any government minister speaking with deliberation of the seriousness of what lies ahead if emissions continue to increase, let alone what is already unavoidable. Perhaps the guidance offered to local councils in relation to planning for future sea level rise might be construed as preparation, but it devolves responsibility at a very advanced level and looks as if it entails a degree of avoidance.

As for adjusting our ecological, social, and economic systems and changing the way we do things, we are, as Rod Oram’s trenchant Sunday Star Times column on the ETS this week points out, “stuck playing the old game. Thanks to New Zealand’s corporate strategies and government policies we’re trying to squeeze ever-more cheap commodities out of our increasingly stressed environment.”

Mrs Mallam didn’t say anything we don’t already know or can’t deduce, but her statement still hit me with considerable emotional force and underlined how important it is to keep challenging the climate apathy in which the New Zealand government is currently mired.